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Analysis
Three-way tussle in store

Three-way tussle in store

Election battleground in 2015 over Europe’s future 

by Denis MacShane

Tue 6 Jan 2015

Greece is in the eye of the euro storm. Germany’s decision, backed by other euro member states, against extending or softening Greek financial support may end with the election of the first national government fully opposed to the single currency bloc’s austerity politics.

As the prelude to a year of important polls across Europe, on 29 December Greece’s left-wing Syriza party joined with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and other members of parliament to refuse to vote for the coalition’s presidential candidate, triggering an election on 25 January.

Greece has suffered a 25% drop in GDP over the past six years and massive cuts in jobs, pay and pensions. The result has been an impressive turn-around in the country’s national budget and international accounts. But Greece remains in crisis. And this month’s poll is just one of a series of elections, including Finland, Estonia, Spain, Poland, Denmark and Britain, where voters have to decide whether to endorse existing governments, be tempted by populist anti-EU parties or just stay at home and abstain.

The 20th-century model of political contests, when voting for standard parties appeared to make a difference, is giving way to cynicism and apathy. Many voters believe financial markets and the media have more power than elected ministers.

Sweden has managed to put off its election as the Swedish conservative and liberal parties agreed to allow the Social Democrats to govern on limited terms until 2018 rather than risk an election which would have boosted right-wing populists.

Britain’s election in May is vital for the EU’s future. If David Cameron stays in Downing Street, the prime minister has promised to hold an in-out referendum in two years on whether the UK will stay in the European Union. The latest polls show a majority ready to vote No. Nine ministers briefed the press over the Christmas holidays that they demanded the right to campaign to leave Europe whatever token concession a re-elected Cameron can obtain from Brussels in any renegotiation.

Political Euroscepticism has moved beyond irritation with Brussels. It has now fused with resentment over immigration, annoyance about European Court of Human Rights rulings, and a sense that the no-growth, high unemployment euro area is no longer part of Britain’s future.

If the Labour Party wins in May, leader Ed Miliband has made clear there will be no Brexit referendum. This will not remove the populist clamour against all things European but at least buys time to allow the politics of European membership to change in favour of continuing membership.

Elections in Spain, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland will test the kind of political system to which Europe appears to be evolving. There looks likely to be a hybrid between the 21st-century model of a three-way split between populist identity parties, and the binary 20th-century political choice between a democratic left and democratic right party formation with a modest reserved space for liberal parties.

In Denmark, no party has won an outright majority since 1909. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Social Democratic prime minister, is faltering in the polls but any replacement government is unlikely to challenge Denmark’s EU membership. Even if the Danish currency is de facto part of the euro, and Danish central bank policy mirrors that of the ECB, the Danes like the Swedes and Finns seem to know how to avoid dramatic polarising politics.

The Swiss election is another example of a system where the ‘winner takes all’ model does not exist. There may have to be some re-jigging of the ‘magic formula’ of 1959 which allows all main Swiss parties a seat or seats in the seven-strong Federal Council or government cabinet. The populist and strongly anti-EU Swiss Peoples Party has 30% of the vote but is under-represented in the Federal Council and may demand an extra seat.

Switzerland too has an EU problem after its referendum decision 11 months ago to impose quotas on EU citizens entering the country. As Cameron found out, this is an issue where Chancellor Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, as well as Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission president, are not prepared to give way. Negotiating a way out of the EU-Swiss impasse ahead of the October election will test the finest diplomatic skills in Brussels and Berne.

The contests in 2015 will be three-way. They pit voters against the established Brussels view of what should be done. They involve skirmishes between populist and anti-EU political movements on the one hand, and on the other, the classical parties that won elections and usually took turns in government in the long period of post-1945 European political settlement. And they provide a battleground for the debate on whether the state should be the ultimate arbiter and provider of national wellbeing, or whether markets and supranational forces are now in the driving seat.

Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister, a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe to be published early in 2015 by I.B. Tauris.

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